Monday, November 25, 2002


Geraldine informed her listeners today that Mickey Mouse turns 74 this month. His debut was in a cartoon entitled "Steamboat Willie" on November 18 1928.

This means that next year he turns 75 and the Disney Corporation will no longer own the copyright for his distinctive image. Or it wouldn't have had it not been successful in persuading California congressman Sony Bono to introduce the Copyright Term Extension Act which blows the term out to 95 years. Mickey will now not be forced to leave home until he is 95 in 2003. The same for Donald who was due to enter the public domain in 2009. Disney will now continue to own his image until the year 2029. Bono and other legislators had support ass they drew up the Bill. Disney is reported to have spent $US 6.3 million in campaign donations in the leading up to the Act's proclamation.

Of course it affects everything. Documents and artistic works from the war which were about to become publicly available now won't for another 20 years. Unless of course Disney gets the copyright term extended again. And there's every reason to believe that it will. Sony Bono's widow Mary who now has his seat in Congress has foreshadowed extending the term of copyright again and again until it lasts "forever less one day".

Disney which itself has plundered the public domain for material (Cinderella Pinocchio, Alice in Wonderland, Snow White, The Jungle Book" etc) appears to want to make sure that it never has to give back to it...

To paraphrase Paul Keating (about tax) people who drink from the well should not complain about attempts to fill it."

And so there's a legal challenge before the US Supreme Court right now.

The US constitution says the Congress shall have the power "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited times to authors and Inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries."

The challenge asks how extending a term of copyright protection for a work already created can promote the progress of science and useful arts.

And anyway 95 years of exclusive rights seems a bit longer than is necessary to encourage people to draw cartoons. The US term of copyright used to be fourteen years. It's been extended eleven times since then, many of the extensions just as Mickey Mouse was about to enter the public domain. But Disney has continued to draw cartoons every step along the way.

Drug companies get by with patents of 14-15 years - and Australia's own Productivity Commission thinks that's too much.

Personally I am not sure copyright "protection" is needed at all. The internet (and blog sites) demonstrate that people are willing to create art and contribute ideas without the need for payment.

Elton John is unlikely to stop writing music just because he isn't given about 100 years in which to exclusively profit from it. It think one year would do him.

My Dad told me that many true inventors refused to have their inventions patented, believing that they belonged to the people.

Okay so my view is extreme and utopian. But what about the view attributed to the American Association of Publishers about Libraries. Libraries allow people to read books for free and so are apparently similar to "terrorist organisations" opposed to the basic principles of the US system.

My eldest daughter admires Walt Disney. She would like to emulate him. If the challenge to the Son Bono Act fails she is unlikely to ever be able to do so. The term of copyright will be extended and extended again way beyond the human lifespan leaving virtually nothing in the public domain to comment on or improve upon without falling foul of a lawsuit.

UPDATE January 17 2003 The constitutional challenge failed. Details here.